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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Daniel Streicker

16 Feb, 2015

Daniel StreickerDr Daniel Streicker is a Wellcome Trust/Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His research looks at the way that pathogens are transmitted between species, with a hope that a better understanding of the ecological and evolutionary factors will allow us to prevent disease spread in future. Daniel has spent time in Peru investigating the frequency that vampire bats spread rabies to humans and livestock – and not managed to escape their bites! Here he shares his passion for his work, and some great advice from his former lab…

What are you working on?

Some of the most important emerging infectious diseases occur when pathogens are transmitted between species. Dramatic examples include the ongoing Ebola outbreak, the SARS outbreak of 2003 (both likely seeded by bats) and HIV (originally from non-human primates). But, the same epidemiological phenomenon underlies major public health and agricultural burdens from pathogens that don’t necessarily spread in humans or domestic animals, but recurrently emerge from other species.

Which pathogen will emerge next, from which host species, and where it will happen? These are some of the biggest questions at the interface of ecology, evolution, public health and veterinary medicine. We are applying tools ranging from field ecology, to molecular phylogenetics, metagenomics and bioinformatics, to mathematical modelling to try to answer fundamental questions about disease emergence between species and improve prospects for control of known zoonoses.

We focus our work around bats, a key group for both newly emerging and well-established zoonotic diseases. Some of the most exciting questions we are addressing right now are: Is culling an effective tool for the control of vampire bat transmitted rabies in Latin America? What ecological and evolutionary factors govern the diversity of viruses in bats and which of these pose the greatest threats to domestic animals? And are there generalisable genomic signals of RNA virus host range and human adaptation.

What does your average day involve?

Since starting my fellowship, my average day has changed quite a lot. The day-to-day management of a big field project in Peru and the usual routine of preparing talks, analysing data and writing papers still keeps me busy, but having a growing team of researchers in my group is an exciting change, particularly considering the diversity of projects going on. So, one minute I could be talking about sampling strategies to collect bat faeces, the next I could be talking about legal agreements with foreign ministries, or the odd things that go on in RNA virus genomes. This requires a good deal of coffee.

Why is your work important?

In a paper in 2009 in Science, Jamie-Lloyd Smith and colleagues wrote: “Models incorporating spill-over transmission—the defining process of zoonotic dynamics—are dismayingly rare.” That situation is beginning to change, but we still have very few success stories in preventing disease emergence between species and many more instances where we seek to intervene without a solid understanding of the ecological dynamics underlying emergence.

The consequences are severe. Every year it is estimated that over one billion people become ill due to the pathogens of other species, with up to one million deaths. I think ecological and evolutionary approaches can help alleviate this burden by devising control strategies that are grounded in understanding the dynamics of host-pathogen systems.

peru picThe work in Peru has particular significance because of the extraordinary frequency of contact between vampire bats and the humans and livestock that they feed on. A recent presentation from the Ministry of Health reported that over 20,000 people were bitten by vampire bats between 2009 and 2013 and many many thousands of domestic animals are bitten nightly.

This is a tremendous force of infection that causes rabies outbreaks and creates the perfect ecological scenario for other bat viruses to emerge. We want to know how to manage this risk in landscapes undergoing rapid environmental change due to livestock intensification, deforestation and mining.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I believe our work sheds light on the ecological and evolutionary factors that allow viruses to jump between species. This moves us one step closer to understanding the origins and outcomes of disease emergence, and eventually prevention.

In parallel, I want to improve the situation for long-neglected disease problems like vampire bat rabies in Latin America by providing and effectively communicating an evidence base for rational control programs that can be adopted by local authorities.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

peruWhen I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I quickly lost enthusiasm for my major in psychobiology, which involved doing a lot of unfriendly things to lab rats. In my second year, I had the good fortune to volunteer as a field assistant for a study of gut parasites in wild rodents. Over that summer, I was struck to learn both that working on wildlife diseases in beautiful places was a career that could directly or indirectly impact human health and that there were so many unanswered (but completely fundamental) questions about how pathogens are transmitted between species. I quickly changed the course of my studies.

The background I got in infectious disease ecology and evolution over the next two years under the mentorship of Amy Pedersen and Janis Antonovics provided a foundation for my later work on bats, to find a nice middle ground between fundamental question-driven science and the more applied world of bat virology.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

Receiving the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship had a massive impact. I was in the difficult position of having established during my PhD a field system and international collaborations that I did not want to abandon, but at an early career stage, very few career paths provide the level of independent financial support and the flexibility that I needed. The fellowship enabled a perfect alternative to a postdoc in someone else’s lab or a lectureship/assistant professorship that would have given me additional administrative and teaching responsibilities. Instead, I find myself working in two highly interactive and exciting institutes at Glasgow with a growing team of students and postdocs who bring even more exciting questions.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

bat biteWorking on vampire bats, I get a lot of questions about bites and blood feeding: do they really drink human blood? Do people sleep through being bitten? Have I been bitten myself? The answer to all three is “yes.”

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

How are your permits applications going? I bring this a question on myself by griping about it all the time, but it is a constant challenge with so many levels of bureaucracy that I feel like I need a white board to answer appropriately.

I attended a workshop recently and was repeatedly reminded of another question I dread: “What is so special about bats as viral reservoirs?” I may be one of the few people who still aren’t totally convinced that bats are actually so special. I’d love to see more science and less hype around that question.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

As a wedding gift for a fellow rabies researcher, I once burned a phylogeny of rabies virus with its various host species into an antique table. My grandfather was a physician who took x-rays of plants in his spare time and my dad built a wall out of used wine bottles and test tubes, so I see this as something of a family tradition.phylo table

What keeps you awake at night?

When I’m in Peru, it’s mostly the alarm that goes off every half an hour to check nets for captured bats. In the UK, I must make up for that deprivation because I sleep quite well (aside from jet lag, of course).

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Tenacity in the face of adversity…to a point.”

This was the Antonovics lab motto if I recall correctly. It might not sound totally serious, but it does reflect that in science we all have to work hard, but should not do that at the expense of everything else in our lives. It also reminds me of the importance of flexibility – sometimes a change in course pays off a lot more than an endless uphill battle.

The chain reaction question – posed by previous spotlit researcher, Dr Rachel Freathy – is this: If you had the opportunity to meet one scientist (living or dead), who would it be and what would you talk about?

I’ll have to go with Louis Pasteur. I’d want to hear about his early experiments on rabies vaccines and the dramatic ways that he countered disbelief with evidence.

You can find out more about Daniel’s work on the Streicker Group website and by following him on Twitter. You may also be interested in the following articles: Vampire bats remain a holdout on the global stage of rabies control and Host Phylogeny Constrains Cross-Species Emergence and Establishment of Rabies Virus in Bats.

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